Grading the 2021 NFL Draft: NFC East report cards
By Rob Rang
FOX Sports NFL Draft Analyst
This week, I’m taking a closer look at each team’s rookie class, including a few of the undrafted free agents I believe could surprise.
I started with the AFC East. Here are my report cards for the NFC East.
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Dallas Cowboys — Grade: B
There might not be a bigger boom or bust draft this year than the collection of talent Jerry Jones and the Cowboys are presenting head coach Mike McCarthy.
Starting from the top, linebacker Micah Parsons is one of this year’s eight "Blue Chip" players, but there is a reason he was the last of them selected and was still available (even after a trade down) for Dallas at No. 12 overall.
Parsons, second-round cornerback Kelvin Joseph (Kentucky) and fourth-round offensive tackle Josh Ball (Marshall) all possess the raw talent to make this the home-run class of 2021. Any (or all) of them could also self-destruct, with enough concerns to be labeled as not just red "flags" but also brilliant, scarlet banners.
As a high school teacher, it is my nature to not focus on the negatives but instead recognize that mistakes made in college matter little if young people mature. Should they do so, Parsons, Joseph and Ball each possess Pro Bowl potential, with Parsons my early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The homer-or-strikeout mentality that was apparently Dallas’ strategy in this draft didn’t end with character concerns, however. UCLA's Osa Odighizuwa offers more flash than the paparazzi outside the Oscars but has not been able to put it all together yet. The same could be said for fifth-round pick Simi Fehoko and sixth-round cornerback Israel Mukuamu.
The Dallas picks I feel most confident in are former North Dakota State-turned-LSU standout Jabril Cox, the best coverage linebacker in this class, and Iowa’s steady (but hardly spectacular) Chauncey Gholston. Cox is more finesse than physical at a position that typically requires the latter. Gholston is the opposite, showing the grit to hold up in run support but lacking the twitch as an edge rusher that new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has required.
New York Giants — Grade: B+
New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman seemed to revel in the unprecedented nature of the 2021 draft, criticizing decision-makers from other clubs who traded their selections during his pre-draft media conference, only to move back from each of his team’s initial three picks last weekend, earning the affectionate "Trader Dave" moniker from his peers.
The new strategy fit Gettleman and the Giants well, earning his club extra first-, third- and fourth-round selections in the 2022 draft as well as some of my favorite fits this year in wideout Kadarius Toney (No. 20 overall), edge rusher Azeez Ojulari (No. 50) and cornerback Aaron Robinson (No. 71), each of whom I expect to make an immediate impact for Big Blue.
Toney is the perfect complement to what the Giants already have at receiver, offering the shake-and-bake as a short- and intermediate-range target after the club spent big in free agency to land former Detroit Lions vertical threat Kenny Golladay.
At just 6-foot-2, 249 pounds, Ojulari lacks the height and girth some want at defensive end, but his burst upfield and long arms make him a nightmare to block. While it had been reported that Ojulari’s stock fell prior to the draft due to teams' concerns about his surgically repaired right knee, multiple league sources told me they were more alarmed by his inconsistency. Paired with a star such as Williams, Ojulari is a good bet to silence all of his doubters, as should Robinson, one of the better all-around corners in a good class at the position.
Of the Giants’ remaining picks, I am highest on the long-term upside of Northern Iowa edge rusher Elerson Smith, though he likely needs at least a year to acclimate to NFL speed and physicality. I don't think the Giants got much extra help with their limited undrafted free-agent crop this year, and I consider Florida interior lineman Brett Heggie the likeliest of the group to make the roster.
Philadelphia Eagles — Grade: A
It isn’t often that a club spends back-to-back first-round picks at the same position, and it's even less often that I will reward them with a good grade. However, that is exactly the situation in which we find ourselves with Philly in 2021, especially with general manager Howie Roseman seemingly reading the board and leaping ahead of his division rival Giants to steal Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.
Look, if you are against an NFL club selecting a 166-pound receiver at No. 10 overall, I get it. But after watching every snap that Smith took last season, I am convinced not only that Heisman voters made the right choice but also that the Eagles did, too. Smith is always going to make you nervous with his slim frame, but he possesses remarkable quickness to get instant clearance off press coverage for a receiver of his size, as well as body control and hand-eye coordination to make tough grabs look routine.
Sometimes that can be overrated – especially when playing with a quarterback who possesses elite accuracy – but that is not the case with the Eagles, who are hoping to build around a quarterback who is more dynamic and inspirational than precise as a passer.
If you think Smith is a roll of the dice, then his Alabama and now Philadelphia teammate, Landon Dickerson, is like betting on snake eyes, given his page-long medical history. It feels like Dickerson missed as many games as he played for Alabama and Florida State, but there are maybe a handful of interior linemen I’ve evaluated over the past 20 years who have his combination of size, power, agility and nastiness.
If he can get healthy – and the Eagles are providing him that opportunity with plenty of starting talent already in-house at center and guard – Dickerson can be the difference-maker inside that Philadelphia has been used to having throughout Jason Kelce’s All-Pro career.
Few teams reload along the defensive line better than the Eagles, and Louisiana Tech’s Milton Williams should be the latest to prove that. Texas Tech (and former Penn State) cornerback Zech McPhearson, one of my favorites of the so-called "second-tier" cornerbacks of this class, also has promise.
Considering where they were selected, I’m also a big fan of Day 3 picks Kenneth Gainwell, Marlon Tuipulotu, Tarron Jackson and JaCoby Stevens, as well as undrafted free agents Jamie Newman at quarterback and wideout Trevon Grimes.
Smith and Dickerson come with the sort of durability red flags that could make a potentially terrific draft class fall on its face. But on the surface, I think this is one of the year’s best hauls.
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Washington Football Team — Grade: B-
It's funny how draft classes sometimes seem to mirror the personality of the team's coach. Washington’s 2021 class does that, which is intended as one helluva compliment, given that Ron Rivera is one of the grittiest and best in the NFL.
Few know better than Rivera what it takes to be a star linebacker in the league, and there is no doubt Washington needed help at this position, especially considering the running back talent facing them in the NFC East.
Former Kentucky linebacker Jamin Davis appears to be just scratching the surface of his potential, and given the talent playing ahead of him along the line of scrimmage in Washington, he should be able to continue to mature into a star.
An even bigger need for the Football Team was at left tackle, and Washington acquired a self-made star in Samuel Cosmi, who is more battle-tested and tougher than most of the blockers selected ahead of him this year.
Washington also got terrific value in its third-round picks of Minnesota cornerback Benjamin St-Juste and North Carolina wideout Dyami Brown, both of whom have the talent to warrant selection a round earlier, but they fell a touch with teams gambling on flashier (but less polished) athletes. St-Juste’s length and physicality make him a nice fit on a defense boasting one of the league’s better pass rushes. The same can be said for Brown, who has the vertical game to complement Terry McLaurin and free-agent acquisition Curtis Samuel nicely.
Of Washington’s Day 3 picks, I’m highest on another underrated tough guy in former Baylor (and Arkansas State) standout William Bradley-King. Washington’s undrafted free-agent group offers more quality than quantity, with running back Jaret Patterson (Buffalo) and Shaka Toney (Penn State) having realistic chances to stick.
One of the most recognized names in the industry, Rob Rang has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated, CBSSports.com, USA Today, Yahoo, NFL.com and NFLDraftScout.com, among others.